SANTA FE – New Mexico is deciding on final contenders in open races for a U.S. Senate seat and a congressional slot that last changed hands a dozen years ago.
The retirement of Sen. Tom Udall, scion of an Arizona ranching family and son of former Interior Secretary and conservationist Stewart Udall, has thrown open a window of opportunity for U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the presumptive Democratic Senate nominee in the increasingly blue state.
Members of the Udall family, once referred to as the “Kennedy’s of the West,” have served in Arizona’s territorial legislature and on its Supreme Court, and in two U.S. Cabinets.
Luján’s imminent departure from the northern 3rd District House seat has set off a free-for-all in that seven-way Democratic primary. Candidates include former CIA operative Valerie Plame and several candidates with deep-rooted connections to Hispanic political traditions and Native American communities.
Plame brought pizzazz to the race with campaign ads involving daredevil driving maneuvers and a newsreel-style montage of her thwarted undercover career aimed at keeping nukes from terrorists. Her covert identity was exposed shortly after her diplomat husband disputed U.S. intelligence used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, a professional advocate for Native American pueblo communities and voting rights issues, is the clear favorite among party delegates and national advocacy groups for progressive causes from abortion rights to the humane treatment of animals.
Campaign ads show Leger Fernandez working with a shovel alongside men in jeans to repair an irrigation ditch – an homage to New Mexico’s peculiar politics of water and centuries-old history of elected acequia irrigation-district leaders.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 in the district that was a political springboard for Udall and former Gov. Bill Richardson, a former Energy Department secretary and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political science professor, says some voters will seize on Plame’s experience in Washington as a quick avenue to influence for the district. Ethnicity and geography also weigh heavily in the fractured race.
“All of them have the same underlying values and are going to pursue generally the same kinds of policies,” Atkeson said.
Three other contenders with Latino roots and election-tested constituencies are running – progressive Santa Fe-based District Attorney Marco Serna; two-time Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya; and rural electrical cooperative leader and state Rep. Joseph Sanchez.
Sanchez advocates for greater restrictions on abortion. Environmental attorney Kyle Tisdel, another contender, wants to steer New Mexico away from carbon-intensive coal and oil industries.
The final weeks of the campaign have veered into recriminations about the influence of out-of-state donations and untraceable dark-money advertising. One paid video ad on Facebook and Instagram from a group with anonymous contributors involves swastikas and describes Plame as a “disgraced racist millionaire.”
Plame has repeatedly apologized for sharing on Twitter in 2017 an article with anti-Semitic expressions, insisting that she opposes anti-Semitism and prejudice in every form.
Another candidate, John Blair, a former Interior Department official during the Obama administration, has seized on the uproar and separate ads favoring Leger Fernandez to condemn the influence of secretive political spending.
“It’s this sort of dark money that has kept Congress from taking meaningful action on gun violence, on climate, on health care,” he said. “We have to call it out.”
In the presidential primary, Joe Biden is likely to win the votes of most Democrats in New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pledged to help him connect with racial- and ethnic-minority voters.
The state hasn’t been won by a Republican presidential contender since George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. President Donald Trump insisted during a rally last year in Rio Rancho that New Mexico was within Republicans’ reach. Clinton beat Trump in the statewide vote in 2016.
Three Republicans are competing for the U.S. Senate nomination to take on Luján in the fall.
Former television weatherman Mark Ronchetti of Albuquerque is highlighting his support for Trump’s border wall. Elisa Martinez of Albuquerque notes her work as an anti-abortion activist, while blasting Ronchetti for ridiculing Trump in the past. Las Cruces-based professor and perennial political candidate Gavin Clarkson also is in the running.
Democrats have dominated the state’s U.S. Senate delegation since Pete Domenici – now deceased – retired in 2007 after six terms.
Loyalty to Trump also is a major theme in the Republican primary for a swing district in southern New Mexico, where first-term Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small won by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2018 against state Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo.
Herrell is running again as a Trump loyalist against petroleum executive and former lobbyist Claire Chase of Roswell, a first-time political candidate with family ties in the oil region closely aligned with the GOP and Trump.
In the state Legislature, prominent Democratic lawmakers including Senate President Mary Kay Papen are confronting primary challenges with all the seats in both chambers up for grabs. Democrats hold a 46-24 majority in the state House and a 26-16 advantage in the Senate.